When was the last time you read a cookbook?
We’re not talking about looking up a recipe for dinner or looking at the gorgeous photos of the food you wish you could make for dinner. We’re talking about sitting down with a cookbook and reading it like a novel before you even begin to use it as a guide for making delicious food.
Get ready to curl up in your favorite chair with Beirut to Boston, the first cookbook from Jay Hajj, better known to Boston foodies as the chef/owner of Mike’s City Diner in the South End.
“I never in my life thought I’d write a cookbook,” Hajj said. “I have to give a lot of credit to Boston Herald writer Kerry Byrne for helping me find my voice so it comes out on the written page. When you read this book, you hear me.”
Beirut to Boston, recently named as a finalist for New England Cookbook of the Year, is a uniquely personal cookbook that tells Hajj’s dramatic story through the food that flavored his life. As a child in Beirut, he was living in a cramped apartment with the Lebanese Civil War raging literally at his doorstep. Looking for a better life, his family fled the country and Hajj arrived in Boston as an eight-year-old boy—unable to speak English, forced to brawl in the streets of working-class Roslindale to protect himself. Like a lot of immigrants, Hajj found work, refuge, and eventually a career in the restaurant industry. By age thirteen, Hajj was washing dishes and then working the line at local restaurants—learning how to cook by watching the chefs in the kitchen, falling in love with the global flavors that surrounded him in Boston and, through food, making friends with fellow immigrants from around the world.
“There were so many wonderful ingredients to try in this country that just weren’t available to my family at home, even during peacetime,” Hajj recalled. “I love the connection you can make with people through food, whether it’s sharing a recipe from my childhood or making something truly American, like a roast turkey with all the fixings, which we turn into a sandwich. Good food bonds people together in a unique way.”
Today, Hajj is chef and owner of Mike’s City Diner, the beloved casual-dining landmark located on Washington Street in the South End.
“Now it’s a fashionable place,” Hajj said, “But when I first opened, it was not a great neighborhood. Most of the stores and shops were boarded up and there was a lot of crime in the streets. The mayor at the time, Mayor Menino, asked me to stick with it because he had a vision for turning the neighborhood around. I’m glad I stayed.”
So are most Bostonians. Very few of whom haven’t made the trip to Mike’s City Diner for breakfast or lunch. Heck, even Food Network star Guy Fieri made the effort, traveling to Mike’s for an episode of his hit series Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives. The Food Network calls Mike’s Famous Pilgrim sandwich, “one of the five best Thanksgiving dishes in America” and MSN named Mike’s the best diner in Massachusetts. Fieri, who wrote the introduction to Beirut to Boston, routinely features Hajj and Mike’s City Diner on his various Food Network programs.
All great achievements, but they can’t compare to the personal level of achievement that Hajj is feeling from seeing his name on the cover of a published cookbook. Each chapter and almost every recipe in Beirut to Boston is filled with delicious comfort food recipes representing the cultures of two great cities—from the rustic pâté and homemade labneh cheese, which Hajj’s family ate while hiding out in the shelters of Beirut, to New England’s famed seafood or the hearty American-style breakfast he shared with President Bill Clinton, U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy, and Boston Mayor Tom Menino at Mike’s City Diner. (You’ll have to read that story for yourself.)
“I’m not an educated man; I thought all I knew how to do was cook. The idea of writing a book never even crossed my mind,” Hajj said. “It’s hard to believe it now, even after the book has been published. I’m just so proud of being able to share my food and my stories with everyone.”
“Beirut to Boston” features a foreword by Food Network star Guy Fieri. There are also appearances by and recipes from celebrity chefs Jamie Bissonnette, Ken Oringer and Ming Tsai, and photography by Ken Goodman. “Beirut to Boston” is published by Page Street Publishing of Salem, Mass.